The demonstrations following police raids on Georgian clubs are a reminder of how meaningful dance music can be.
Clubs like Bassiani and Café Gallery are on the front lines of this conflict, as Friday's police raids made clear. In a country where the Orthodox Church holds enormous clout, homophobia is rife and zero-tolerance drug policies lock up people for trace amounts of soft drugs, these clubs created something typically reserved for the most liberal and cosmopolitan cities: house and techno parties that run past dawn. Both were explicitly LGBTQ-friendly; Bassiani was home to the biggest gay parties ever seen in Georgia. It also placed itself at the center of the fight against Georgia's drug laws, partnering with the activist group White Noise Movement.
Most clubs in Tbilisi do not have explicit politics. But all are political by the fact of their existence. They symbolize one of Georgia's possible futures: as a tolerant society free from the oppression of the Soviet era. In this sense, they are a threat to the status quo, which could explain why conservatives in Georgia find them so provocative.
Friday night's raids were met with days-long protests in front of the Parliament Of Georgia. They were cheered on by countless clubs, DJs, promoters and electronic music fans around the world, as well as most sources of electronic music news. The protests were covered in international news outlets like The Guardian and the BBC. There was even a satellite protest outside the Georgian embassy in Berlin.
To some it might seem odd that two clubs being raided should prompt such an extraordinary response—those who ordered the raids presumably did not expect it. To the detached onlooker, from police and politicians to people noting the "objectively annoying" music at the demonstrations on Saturday, clubs seem like a cheap thrill, more about personal indulgence than music or culture. But for many people, going out is an essential ritual that gives rise to many of the best things in life, from individual moments inside the clubs to the many friendships that begin or take shape there, to the creative inspiration they provide for many in the crowd.
Over the last 25 years, club culture has fit into unique historical moments in a way that gave it a much deeper meaning. This was the case in the UK in the late '80s, when the first raves provided a perfect antidote to the fragmentation of Thatcherite Britain. It happened again in Berlin in the early '90s, when techno soundtracked the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Wall. Tbilisi in this decade has been another one of these moments, with club culture giving a radical new idea of what kind of place Tbilisi could be.
Friday night's raids were supposedly justified by months-long investigations of low-level drug dealing at Bassiani and Café Gallery, and exacerbated by the recent drug-related deaths of five people in the city (none of which took place in any club). But Nino Iomjaria, a public defender working on the case, says the eight drug dealers the police were after had all been successfully arrested hours before the raids began, and in any case it's not clear why such arrests would call for military-style raids. The decision to attack the clubs in such a way, pointing automatic rifles at guests and arresting the clubs' owners, seems like an intimidation tactic aimed less at arresting dealers than telling the clubs and their patrons that they were wrong to think their city would tolerate them.
The raids call to mind an incident in 2016 when Georgian nationalists attacked a vegan café by throwing sausages at the patrons there. Techno clubs, like vegan cafés, are hallmarks of a modern, progressive city, and are therefore seen by some as a threat to conservative ideologies (in Tbilisi, both are also safer spaces for foreigners and queer people). Indeed, right-wing nationalists also fit into this story: they staged a counter-demonstration on Sunday, and at the time of writing had vowed to continue protesting on a daily basis against what they're calling "drug dealers and LGBT propagandists." This highlights the larger battle in which Tbilisi's clubs play a leading role.
The footage of the raids is chilling, and it's terrible that anyone would face violence or arrest with so little reason. But for many people around the world, the incident and its aftermath have been deeply moving—the word "goosebumps" came up a lot in response to videos of the demonstrations. In this day and age, a generation since the first acid house parties, club culture can feel like a commodity, still capable of adding value to our lives but lacking much of its original significance. Seeing that crowd of people on the grandiose steps of Georgia's parliament putting their hands in the air to "Heike (Villalobos Mood Mix)," you realize that's not true. Tbilisi's club scene suffered a blow this past weekend. But it also proved that club culture is much more than a way for young people to cut loose. It's a cultural phenomenon so powerful that people risk violence and arrest to protect it, putting themselves and their city in the global spotlight, and possibly shaping the course of history.